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Tarragon Theatre's production of If We Were Birds, acclaimed by Dora jurors and by J. Kelly Nestruck too.
Tarragon Theatre's production of If We Were Birds, acclaimed by Dora jurors and by J. Kelly Nestruck too.

Doras: Lowering the toxicity level Add to ...

The Dora Mavor Moore Awards have come and gone and, after all the arguing over who got nominated and who did not, I have to say the list of winners - pardon me, recipients - isn't really that far off from what a hypothetical hive mind of Toronto critics would have selected as the best of the season. In the general division, I was very happy to see Soulpepper's production of Parfumerie, Tarragon's productions of If We Were Birds (above) and Courageous and BirdLand/Talk is Free's production of Assassins recognised by the jury.

Almost two weeks after the Doras, they already seem long ago, but I wanted to come back to the subject of how the jurors for Toronto's theatre, dance and opera awards deal with conflicts of interest because a) it's generated heated discussion online and offline and b) now that the awards have come and gone we can all discuss it with cooler heads (my hot head especially included).

On Monday, I spoke on a panel about theatre criticism at the Toronto Fringe Festival and the subject of my blog post came up. Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, whose nomination for Oustanding Performance by a Male in a Principal Role was highlighted because his director Nina Lee Aquino was on the jury that nominated him, was there and expressed his anger at me for casting doubt on the legitimacy of his nomination - a nomination that had been a pleasant surprise for him after a substantial career in Toronto theatre. We talked afterwards and, I must say, I feel badly that his experience was, in his words, "ruined."

If I had phrased my blog post in a less provocative way, I feel I could have made my point about the jury process without anyone's night being spoiled. So, belated, I wanted to clarify a couple of points.

First of all, I have absolutely no opinion as the to the quality of Lee's performance in The Monster Under the Bed - as I said in my blog post, I did not see it.

To say his nomination "raised a red flag" was a poor choice of words. I simply did not expect Lee to be nominated - partly because I had not heard about his performance and partly because I find the Dora rules for theatre for young audiences shows perplexing. But, ultimately, my personal surprise about any given nomination is an issue entirely separate from the issue of jury conflicts of interest - and I wish I hadn't muddied the issue by mixing the two. Even if I had seen Lee's performance and raved about it, the fact that his director was on the jury would be problematic.

Secondly, having read through the comments and taken a series of long, deep breaths, I now regret the provocative angle and angry tone that I took in the blog post as embodied by the oh-so-clever, not-actually-so-clever-after-all headline: Jurors are doin' it for themselves.

In fact, Dora jurors like Nina Lee Aquino and Leanna Brodie, who I mentioned in the blog post, are doing it for the theatre community. I have no reason to doubt their or any of the jurors' personal integrity. They volunteered an enormous amount of time to see the insane number of shows that were eligible in the general division.

Which is why it is unfortunate that Dora jurors are put in the impossible situation of having to judge work they were directly involved in.

In my post-Dora conversations with the folks at Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, it's been clarified for me that jurors are asked to leave the room when a show they were involved in is being discussed.

But, in the various secret ballots that determine the nominees and the winners, they have to vote for or against work that they had an artistic hand in and are not given the option of abstaining. That, pure and simple, is a conflict of interest.

As many comments in my blog post pointed out - and I should have - conflicts like this don't necessarily work in favour of productions that jurors are involved in. As designer Lindsay Anne Black wrote (under the name linanneblack), when she was a Dora juror in the independent theatre division in 2008, she was put the awkward position of having to vote for or against herself in the set design category - and she ultimately chose to vote against herself. If she hadn't been on the jury that year - who knows? - she might very well have won. If she had had the option of abstaining, it wouldn't even be a question.

At the Fringe panel on Monday, TAPA executive director Jacoba Knaapen said that the types of conflicts of interest that have occurred - actors voting on plays they performed in; directors voting for performances they shaped; designers voting on their own designs - are "inevitable." That's hardly the case. This seems to me to be a issue easily resolved: Jurors should be asked not to nominate any aspect of a show they were personally involved in. And then, if a show they were directly involved in makes it onto the short list, they should be instructed to abstain in that category.

With a full ten jurors on each jury, the potential disadvantage to any show's chances of garnering nominations will be negligible - while the benefit to the credibility of the Dora Mavor Moore Awards will be huge.

Now, having criticized the Doras, let me criticize myself. In my last blog post on this issue, I wrote that the debate about the Doras was "becoming a toxic one." And then, by focusing on how the weak conflict of interest rules might give an advantage to shows jurors were involved in, I went and raised the toxicity level. That was not particularly constructive and I apologize for doing so - especially to Lee, who got sideswiped by this whole thing.

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